John & Rose Gallagher c.1916
My grandfather was born two centuries ago. He grew up in a rural community decimated by the potato famine – the population of Sligo county had halved between 1845 and 1895 through death and emigration (nationally the population fell by 25% – one million dead and one million emigrated). There was work in the potato fields, the peat-bogs or the coal mines on the mountain, but it was back-breaking, badly paid, and dangerous. Crime was a poor alternative. As a child, on the shoulders of his father, John Gallagher saw a man hanged in a field for sheep-rustling. The west of Ireland was wild, far from Dublin, and infrastructure developments such as roads, schools, electricity and running water came later than to most of Ireland. Although Dublin had a public electricity supply scheme in 1880, in 1965 20% of rural households still did not have electricity, and the last outlying communities were not connected until the mid 1970s.
Cutting the peat – as it has been done for centuries.
There has always been a thirst for stories and for learning in the West of Ireland, and for most of the 18th and 19th century the only places children from rural communities could access learning, apart from at home and in the extended family, was through ‘hedge schools’. These were informal classes held for students of all ages and levels, often in isolated farm buildings, and led by educated men (usually) of the area. Often an older student would replace the teacher once he overtook his learning and ability in the key areas of Greek and Latin. Although by the mid 1800s most villages had national schools, the hedge schools persisted in areas of need almost until the 20th century. Geevagh National School was started in 1833, although during the famine years from 1845 to 1852 it often served as a poorhouse, infirmary and morgue. My grandfather would have grown up with the stories I heard later of children lying down to die on the banks of the road by the school. There was no food, nowhere to go, no help.
My grandfather understood, as the hedge school masters had, that the only possible way out of such a difficult environment was through education. He worked hard, studied long into the night (probably by gaslight or candlelight), and made his way to Dublin. He graduated from St Patrick’s teacher training college, as a King’s Scholar, in 1906 – a rare achievement for a boy from the bog. After two years of probationary practice, he started teaching at the village school in Geevagh, Sligo, and within a few years had earned the nickname he kept for the rest of his life – ‘The Master’. All respected him, but he respected everyone and always said that we have something to learn from everyone in life.
The only certificate that hangs on my walls is that of my grandfather – a beautiful document that looks as though it belongs in the Book of Kells. It is a constant reminder of who he was, who I want to be, of why education is so important. He is part of my culture, part of my DNA. I never met my grandfather, but I want him to be proud of me, proud of what I am doing, working in education and always striving to improve the opportunities and outcomes of children. My father is, deo gratias, here for me, proud of me, and jokes that he is now both the ‘Master’s son’ and the ‘Master’s father’.
The problems my grandfather faced are not the same problems we face now, and indeed nor are they of the same order of magnitude. He was confronted with the problem of getting children to school in a healthy enough state to learn, and with the difficulties of teaching Greek and Latin to rural folk who often could not see the necessity of such learning. Parents would often take children out of school to help at home, on the farm, in the peat bogs. Illiteracy rates were around 15%, and average attendance at school was 70% of eligible children. We take it for granted now that children come to school and that most of them are willing to learn. Over 100 years after John Gallagher started teaching, the world he knew has in many ways changed beyond recognition; ultimately however, my job now is the same is his then – preparing our students for a world which is constantly changing.